The math should point to climbing carbon prices in forests as global corporations and cities keep promising to zero out their carbon impact by midcentury.
Yet to date, the price for a ton of forest carbon has stayed stable, making growth tricky.
This story examines how three forest-carbon finance companies aim to differentiate, define and demonstrate viability at the dawn of an era.
On June 23, 2020 Amazon commenced its $2 billion Climate Pledge Fund to further endeavors to become net zero by 2040. In January of 2020 Microsoft committed to invest $1 billion over the next four years as part of their Climate Innovation Fund. And on July 21, 2020 Apple committed to become 100% carbon neutral – across its entire business, supply chain, and product life cycle by 2030.
These commitments and investments along with those of other corporates have created an important source of demand and funding for forest carbon. While much of this capital will be used and has already been used for other carbon removal strategies and technologies, a significant portion of it has been and should continue to be available for forest carbon.
But corporates do not just go directly to and pay landowners that are willing to conserve their forest. Instead, carbon project developers act as the intermediaries between the two, that make everything happen.
There’s also a problem: despite the billions of dollars put forth for carbon removal, the price per forest carbon credit is still not high enough to prompt a critical mass of owners to stop traditional harvesting and start the carbon-credit adventure. Currently, the average price per credit in the voluntary market is about $10 and in the compliance market it is about $14.
To better understand how forest carbon projects are conducted the CFN interviewed three carbon project developers, Ecopartners, Bluesource, and Finite Carbon. In spite of their respective success, all three of these developers have very different business models. Finite Carbon specializes in forest carbon projects and puts emphasis on understanding landowners’ needs and how carbon strategies can fit into and be a part of forest management. Ecopartners uses innovation and creativity to make carbon projects and their accompanying standards work for an eclectic range of landowners. Bluesource takes on many project types beyond forest carbon and tailors their process not only to landowners but to corporates as well by making marketing a top priority.
At their core the developers use landowners’ property parameters – the diameter at breast height (DBH) of their trees, tree heights, and tree species to derive carbon credit totals under different standards. If the landowners think the potential revenue generated by the credit totals is enough and they want to proceed with the project, then the developers will enact the project for them with a contract. Lastly, the developers market and sell the credits to corporates and then return the revenues to the landowners.
Nonetheless, there are various ways to go about doing this. For starters, geographies may vary for each carbon project developer. Central Appalachia and the old pulp and paper regions of Maine, the lake states, northern New England, and upstate New York are hot project areas for Bluesource. Finite Carbon also focuses on projects in the eastern US. Ecopartners on the other hand, takes a much more international approach. They have conducted projects in South America, Central America, Africa, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu!
Domestically, landowners in the old pulp and paper regions now want compensation for their pulp and paper wood without having to cut it. Thus, the price per credit problem is less of an issue in these areas and Bluesource has made a point to capitalize on them. Central Appalachia is also a popular spot for Bluesource because property on mountainous terrain is not heavily managed nor expected to generate tons of revenue, which helps to avoid the price per credit dilemma as well. There is also an abundance of hardwoods in this region, which have more carbon content than pines.
Ecopartners’ international profile has led them to using different standards and protocols from Bluesource and Finite Carbon. They tend to use Verra’s Verified Carbon Standard (VCS), which is more geared for international and REDD+ projects. Whereas, Bluesource makes more use of the American Carbon Registry (ACR) Standard for their abundance of voluntary projects. And Finite Carbon leans more on the California Compliance Standard, as they conduct more compliance projects.
The VCS and many of Ecopartners’ projects are geared toward stopping deforestation threats and land conversion in the global south. While these projects present their own set of difficulties, focusing on them is an effective way to avoid the typical scenario in which a landowner finds that harvesting their trees is more profitable than a carbon project.
Finding more than one way from the roots to the returns.
Finite Carbon has a different way of dealing with this problem. Unlike Bluesource and Ecopartners, they specialize in forestry carbon projects. This strategy is baked into Finite’s staff as well. Many of them worked in conservation or forestry before coming to Finite. “Having focused solely on forestry projects, Finite has a grasp on forest management, land use protection, and conservation” said Finite Carbon’s Dylan Jenkins. Taking this approach has allowed Finite to really understand landowners and given them a knack for implementing carbon strategies into landowners’ pre-existing management regimes. This is something that developers struggle with, as many landowners do not want to change their preset regimes nor like the idea of having their trees or part of their property locked into a long-term agreement. Making carbon projects more convenient for landowners and figuring out how they can exist in harmony with their harvests has allowed Finite to overcome these problems and the price per credit dilemma on many properties.
In contrast, Bluesource has seen their own advantages by conducting additional carbon project types, such as Ag methane, Acid Gas Injection, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and Carbon Capture. “This has allowed Bluesource to not only expand their buyer network but to have more set-in-stone buyers as well” said Bluesource’s Aaron Paul. Taking on a range of carbon credit projects also gives Bluesource the ability to make entire footprint reports for their clients.
Similar to Bluesource, Ecopartners goes beyond forestry and includes grassland, shrubland, wetlands, mangroves, dry land savanna, and water or blue carbon projects. Some of these projects are done on their own but Ecopartners also combines them with forest carbon projects when appropriate. This allows Ecopartners to generate more revenue for landowners and to make the projects more attractive for them than just harvesting their trees.
Ecopartners also makes a point to be very flexible when it comes to standards. While they make use of the VCS for international projects, they do not wed themselves to any one standard. They use whichever standards are the best fit for their clients for each project even if the standards would not customarily be used for the given projects. Unlike many developers, Ecopartners pushes standards to their limits and bends them to make them work for their projects, despite the standards’ strict constraints. “Our projects are more experimental and creative; they push the boundaries of the field,” said Ecopartners’ Zach Barbane. This Ecopartners approach is effective for incorporating more landowners and is another way to overcome low prices per credit.
Bluesource and Finite take a very different and much more systematic approach. Nonetheless, Bluesource controls most of the US voluntary market. Likewise, Finite has procured 45% of all California Compliance forestry offsets, which makes up 37% of all California Compliance offsets. By sticking to the same standards and perfecting their compliance to them, both developers have become accustomed to applying standards to various properties. This has allowed Bluesource and Finite to make carbon projects work for a lot of landowners.
Yet the price per credit dilemma still keeps many landowners from implementing carbon projects. One of the main underlying problems that amplifies this dilemma is that smallholders or landowners with less than 5,000 acres typically cannot overcome the inventorying and verification costs associated with carbon projects.
To address this issue, Ecopartners developed an app that allows landowners to take the proper tree measurements for carbon projects on their properties with their phones. This can drastically reduce the inventorying costs associated with the projects making them more accessible for those with less land. The app needs to improve its accuracy a little more but Ecopartners should feel good about using their innovative thinking to help bring small landowners to the carbon table.
Finite Carbon has also made an effort to reach small landowners with their new small business and device, Core Carbon. This digital platform estimates the amount of carbon that is in a given forested area with a general geospatial outline of the property and remotely sensed data.
Accordingly, with Core Carbon boots on the ground inventorying is not required and forest carbon projects are much more affordable for smallholders. Core Carbon is still being calibrated but it is well on its way and is an important part of Finite’s overall business model.
Unfortunately, even if both of these new technologies scale and inventorying becomes significantly cheaper, an average of about $12 per credit will still make harvesting more attractive for many both small and large landowners. Even large scale timberland invest management organizations (TIMOs) with millions of acres of land are not ready to implement carbon projects on their properties. Many TIMOs think at $12 a credit, harvesting is just the more economic decision.
Nonetheless, Ecopartners, Bluesource, and Finite Carbon have all found unique ways to circumvent the low price per credit predicament and implement carbon projects despite it.
Bluesource has conserved more than 1.8 million acres of forested land and has generated over $182 million of revenue for landowners. Ecopartners has protected over 13 million acres of forested land and abated more than 260 million tons of carbon. And Finite Carbon has conserved more than 3.1 million acres of forested land and has produced over $720 million of revenue for landowners. But think about all of the tons of carbon that these three developers could abate and all of the acres of forest land they could conserve if the price per credit were higher.